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Odds & Sods
Fishing Lakes Entrance
Friday, 10th December, 2004  - Ben Parker

I have been fishing the Gippsland Lakes estuary system ever since I could hold a fishing rod. Sadly, the system deteriorated badly through the late eighties and nineties. The diversity of catch has greatly decreased, there are more days of little to no fish and the seaweed is taking over.

Commercial netting is still allowed in the lake system. This seems hard to justify when there are so little fish and tourism is the region's major income. Regular polluting from farm run-off often sees mass deaths as well. Although scenic, this is not a healthy system.

To the fisherman, this means harder work getting a catch. Often the system seems to close up shop and days can go by with nothing but a few small snapper. I decided that this would not do and set about testing new techniques to locate fish.

I have found some staples to be reasonably available to the clever and patient fisherman. In this series of articles I will describe to what I have learned in the hope you can do as well.

Part 1 - The Leatherjacket

My fall back position on a bad day fishing is the much maligned leatherjacket. Leatherjackets love structures so are abundant around jetties and rock walls off which they feed. They aren't a powerful swimmer so will avoid areas of high current. I have found a submerged rock wall that extends out into one of the lakes. One side is banked with sand while the other drops off very deep; perfect protection from current for the leatherjacket while providing a good food source.

Leatherjacket have a strong jaw and very sharp teeth which are designed to crunch barnacles and shells. They certainly give a hook shank a grinding when caught. As such only ever use long shank hooks; a size 8 to 10 is good.

Like many opportunistic feeders, they are quite happy to suck in a pippie or prawn. Small strips of squid are also good. I like to stick to bait that I can gather locally so tend toward shrimp netted in the weed and mussels from the jetties.

The key to catching leatherjacket is detecting the first movement of the bait. The bite of the leatherjacket is very subtle. This is not an aggressive fish attacking a live bait. Leatherjackets will mosey up to the bait and suck it in then move off. It is important that you detect this first bait movement or your hook will be inhaled and the fish will bite you off. This of course can be avoided by heavier line but to me this removes the challenge and art of fishing; there must be a reasonable chance that, with the resources at his disposal, the fish can win. So challenge yourself to detect that first movement of the bait and stick with light line.

Once hooked, leatherjackets don't really put up a struggle. They don't have the physical attributes needed to turn sideways and thrust away from the pull of the line. This is one of the reasons why they are not generally targeted. Also, some find them a little ugly and the skin a little off-putting. I think they're beautiful and the skin makes them easy to prepare for the pan.

Do not behead the fish. I prefer fish to be served whole whenever possible. With this variety though there is some wonderful flesh in the cheek cavity; possibly the best flesh. Seeing the little headless bodies at the fish markets breaks my heart.

As with most fish, handling leatherjacket in the kitchen is simple. I pan fry in butter. The key is how you handle them before they get to the kitchen.

As the name suggests the skin is reminiscent of leather and must be peeled off the fish. I do a vertical slit right at the tail and work a finger under the skin. From here it is a relatively easy job to rip the skin off. Some people chop off the spike but I don't see the point. Slit the gut and remove the gizzards. The fish is now ready for the pan.

Toss some butter in the warmed pan and wait for it to sizzle. I use a moderate pan but this will depend on the size of the fish. The flesh is white and delicate and it is important not over cook. Just slightly browned on either side should be plenty. If the flesh separates you are over cooking and will lead to toughening of the meat; if its chewy then you've over overdone it. Make a note for next time. Serve with a sqeeze of lemon or a drizzle of top vinegar onto the plate, not directly on the fish.

If there are Leatherjacket around where you fish don't be shy about targeting them. Be proud, this is a worthy animal.

Next: Salmon in the surf and the return of the smoker…

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